Conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1992.
Hosted by Will Bachman.

Episode: 35

John Unger, Teacher and Coach

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Show notes

When John Unger graduated from Harvard Law, he immediately started working at a Law firm in Cincinnati, and immediately realised it was a career path he did not want to follow. So, he left and began teaching high school students, and he has been teaching ever since. John talks about teaching, coaching,and how he connects with students. 

Key points include:

  • 05:15: How his style of teaching has changed over the years
  • 12:55: Behind the scenes as a high school coach
  • 21:54: On building leadership skills


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92-35.John Unger

John Unger, Will Bachman


Will Bachman  00:01

Hello, and welcome to the 90 T report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman. And I’m excited to be here today with John Unger. John, welcome to the show.


John Unger  00:16

Thank you. Well, good to be talking with you, John,


Will Bachman  00:19

I really loved your entry in our 30th class report. You, you seem like just full of gratitude for what you have going on in life, and you’re very satisfied with things. Tell us about your journey since leaving Harvard.


John Unger  00:36

Okay, well, since leaving Harvard, I started by going to Harvard Law School. And that was a pretty natural step. For me, I knew that I wanted to be a politician, or I knew that at the time. So I went to the law school and pretty optimistic about how things would go. And I should have known because my worst classes in undergrad were justice and critical legal studies. And law school was kind of continuation of that very difficult for me. Fortunately, I had a roommate, who’s also one of our classmates, CRISPR, Jonas and I started taking all my classes, whatever he took, was filled out for class, our class rankings of what we wanted to take, I just copied his unless he had a super hard professor. And so he kind of carried me through. So I made it through Well, first year of law school, I went to work at a law firm in Cincinnati, a really good law firm. And I despised working there. And I knew the last day I was like, I’m never going to work in a law firm again. I did go back to second year of Harvard Law School. And then I got another job at another prestigious law firm in Cincinnati.


Will Bachman  01:52

It seems like you had forgot the lesson of the previous yet.


John Unger  01:55

Yeah. After swearing, I wouldn’t do that. But I walked in on day one. And I immediately got psychosomatically Ill just seeing people working in the library. And I saw I quit that day. And I started working in a in Cincinnati Public Schools with the with the summer school for math for kids who are trying to pass their state proficiency tests. And, and then I went back and finished law school and I took the bar exam, but then I went to Xavier education school. So when I came back to Cincinnati after so in education school, I took courses on math education, because that was my favorite topic in high school, and just the quickest way I could get through. I also knew I wanted to be a coach. And I thought I’d be a basketball coach primarily, but in a soccer coach secondarily, but I took a class on coaching soccer, by the Xavier head soccer coach. And I took a class with the entire soccer team and one girls basketball player. And that helped me get started on coaching soccer. So when I went to get my teaching job, I ended up being a teacher and a coach. And since then, it’s been pretty much the same thing. I’ve been teaching math at Madeira High School in Cincinnati, which is in the same league as my old high school. And I was a head soccer coach for 17 years, and I’ve been an assistant soccer coach now for the past, I guess, 10 years. And that’s where I’m at. Yeah, and I am I’m grateful. It’s been a, it’s been a really good. It’s been a good life and a great experience for me. And, you know, a lot of good things have happened to me since I left Harvard. So that’s, that’s it in a thumbnail?


Will Bachman  03:38

Well, I imagine we may have some attorneys listening to the show. And they’re thinking, Man, I wish I had done that. Like, I don’t know, I did talk to a classmate. Sometimes you go to law school, and they’re not not loving their life. So tell me about life as a math teacher, what is different about it than most people would expect?


John Unger  03:58

Well, you know, one thing that that was different for me looking at it from outside compared to inside is it’s things aren’t black and white. It’s not like, you know, there’s a 10 question test and you miss two questions at 80%. It’s, it’s a lot more gray than that. And in terms of teaching, I consider my role like I know that 90% or more of my students will never use the math I teach them outside of high school. They might use them in a class in college, but mostly I look at it’s trying to help the kids have a great experience learning and to feel positive about being in a classroom and pushing themselves and trying to hit certain standards and learn lessons. But again, it’s it’s it’s it’s different thing I think, what I realized, or what I taught classes, where as a student for me it was very black and white and there are points to get and percentages to get but I’m trying to really help kids learn but also like learning And that’s probably more important to me than the actual material I teach them.


Will Bachman  05:06

What you How has your like style or approach to it evolved over 25 years? Right? 25 years of teaching?


John Unger  05:15

Yeah. Yeah, it’s funny, because I remember back in conferences with parents, and they told me oh, well, you know, you’re not going to think like this, when you have your own kid, or your own kids, and, and they were right there at the time, I didn’t think so. Seeing things as a parent, are much different than seeing things. When I first started, I was, I was far more rigid. When I started, you know, I was, I was far stricter, I’d become a lot more empathetic through the years. You know, and I think I probably become better at classroom management, understanding kids, you know, knowing what I can let go. And, you know, I guess just a lot of gradual changes, but I feel like I’ve been fairly consistent. I do, try and make a point of connecting with all the kids as a first priority. And that’s probably my greatest strength, I’m probably better at connecting with kids than I am a teaching material. And that might be partially because that’s, that’s my number one focus.


Will Bachman  06:21

Say more about that, how do you connect with kids?


John Unger  06:24

Well, I don’t know if you know, when I was in high school, and before, there was a real strict I mean, I didn’t have any relationship with my, with my teachers, other than in class. I mean, you tried to be a good student, you tried to be a respectful student, but I really do try and know these kids, in and out of the class, what they’re doing outside of the class, I’m very interested, and I live in the town. And I’ve been here a long time, I’ve, I’ve taught many, many siblings. And at this point, I feel like I know 80% of the parents before, before their kids even come into my classroom. So I feel like I know them pretty well outside the class. And I care about their activities, and I care about them, I really do. So it’s hard to explain how you connect with them. I guess, they’re knowing that you don’t judge them by whether they get something right or wrong. I think they care a lot about that. And I think for the most part, when the kids feel like you really care about them as a person, they’re going to give you their best and and to do what they can for you. So it helps as a teacher and it helps also with the management of the class.


Will Bachman  07:34

And how do you help them realize that you like, you know, try to have lunch with each kid at least once or, or just go to their sports events? Or just go What are some ways maybe outside of the classroom itself that you try to build that connection?


John Unger  07:54

Yeah, I never have lunch with the kids. Never, I always eat with my colleagues, I’m in the same lunchroom as them. And you know, and I, and I see them, and I’ll be with them in the lunch line, this or that. But yeah, I do go to activities, I try and go to as many activities I can. Sporting events are really fun for me, and I coach, a lot of these kids in soccer and basketball, I coached boys and girls in soccer, and I coach boys and basketball. But I also try and go to other events. And I and I do try and go to the events that are less attended. Like, I’ll try and go to academic team, or I’ll just go to the chess team, or I’ll go to swimming, or I’ll go to I go to the drama. So in kids, kids love that when they see their teachers there. I think we all maybe remember that when we were in school. And then I see them a lot just around town. I see them working at their jobs i i will make if things are going poorly with a student, I will usually go to their house, and I’ll meet meet with them. And I’ll meet with their parents if things are particularly bad, which is pretty unusual. But I will stop at people’s houses here and there. I live right there. I’m neighbors with a bunch of kids. And I’ve never had a problem doing that. It really helps. As a coach. I used to do that all the time. And I do it some as a teacher.


Will Bachman  09:12

It’s interesting to me, you’re kind of recognition that they’ll you know, won’t use the math like what which courses are you teaching?


John Unger  09:20

I teach almost all the juniors our high school we’ve got a school of about 400 A little over 400 kids. So I teach algebra two for most kids and then honors PreCalculus for our fastest kids. So I get I get probably 90 to 95% of the juniors. And by the time everyone’s graduated, I probably have taught about, yeah, about 95% of them.


Will Bachman  09:45

You know, it’s interesting to me, I went into relatively quantitative stuff myself. I mean, I was a nuclear trained submarine officer and then I was a consultant. But nevertheless, I don’t use most of them. And I loved that that was on the math team. I don’t get much opportunity to use most of the math that I learned. But I’m what it feels that there’s this very much like ingrained path that schools feel they have to teach, because maybe that’s what’s on the various tests. But there’s like math that doesn’t get taught so often maybe like statistics, which would be more useful in life that doesn’t get taught so often in high school, are there things that you see that would actually make more logical sense to teach this other subject like probability theory, or statistics, or financial literacy or something that might be more helpful for you most kids long term?


John Unger  10:38

That’s a great question. I don’t really have a super answer for that. Because there’s a combination of needing to meet standards, which, you know, that’s kind of out of our control. And I know your your question kind of asks me, we should change that whole, that whole setup, but also in terms of classroom management, it’s tough also, because kids are different levels. And yet, it’s really hard to have kids doing different things while you’re teaching a class. But you know, when you have some special kids who are able to go further, I try and do things for them specially to help them get further ahead, because it’s just can’t have everybody at their own level would be a real challenge as an individual teacher.


Will Bachman  11:25

Oh, yeah. No, I, I was thinking more just like, you know, what, just forget about? Forget about Yeah, it’s like, if you if those standards weren’t in place, and you didn’t have to worry about that, like, you might just say, you know, what, forget about trigonometry. No one ever uses trigonometry. And just an even though calculus is actually kind of cool. Just forget about calculus, because no one uses it in real life. I mean, right? Just forget about it. Just like instead, teach statistics, probability, teach people learn how to understand like, how to calculate a mortgage payment, you know, themselves, so they can evaluate things, teach them to think about, you know, comparing, you know, investments and in crypto versus, you know, long term equities or something, so they can make smart decisions through their life, as opposed to just this random stuff that 100 years ago, someone said, Oh, everybody should learn calculus. Now. Everybody has learned calculus, which is, I mean, it’s super interesting. It was fun to do, but zero times in my life and you know, I’m a consultant is relatively quantitative, never, never, like, I never get to different, you know, integrate some thing, you know, basically, right? It’s just, it’s just like, you never get a chance to use it, even if you liked it. Right?


John Unger  12:35

I think you would have a pretty good school. Well, I would be happy to attend your school.


Will Bachman  12:40

Alright. Let’s talk about coaching. So that sounds like something that really energizes you. What is tell me about what a coach in high school actually does behind the scenes?


John Unger  12:55

Okay, yeah, coaching is really my passion. And I, you know, even though teaching is my number one profession, coaching is what I really spend my time and what I care most about. As a head coach, it’s, yeah, it really depends on how hard you want to work at it, I worked probably too hard at it, I did everything, you know, I did stuff that that wasn’t being done in time, like videos and scouting and, and even though a lot more people do that now, just running the practice, I tried to make practice plans, like I tried to make school lesson plans. And I kept a journal of what I did with my, with my teams, and would send that to my friends and family out of town. And so I was really busy all day doing stuff, keeping track of everybody managing the team, managing expectations, trying to get the guys to work as far as they could, but at the same time trying to keep everybody together. That’s, you know, it’s, it’s pretty involved in what I’ve found that being a head coach, once I stepped down from that when my own son was getting into school and not going to bed until I came home. I found that just being an assistant was a million times easier. And it’s now all I try and do is help all these kids have as great a time as possible, and try and help the coaches that was good a time as possible also, but yeah, it’s after school. I was one of those kids in high school that I counted the minutes down to the end of the day because I couldn’t wait to go to practice. And, you know, sometimes as a coach, that’s kind of what what I’m like to so anyways, that’s that’s generally


Will Bachman  14:34

and what was your sport? When we my scores


John Unger  14:39

in high school, I played soccer. That was my best sport. I was pretty strong. In basketball, I was not so strong, but I love the game. And then I did a year of baseball and I did two years of track. So yeah, soccer number one.


Will Bachman  14:53

Did you play sports in at Harvard?


John Unger  14:56

At Harvard? I tried. Well, yeah, I was intent on being a varsity athlete, I walked onto the cross country team, which would not be possible. Now my first day I showed up, the coach had no idea who I was. And they ran 10 miles into Boston back and I had to stay as fast as the slowest runner, I was gonna get lost. I did that for a few weeks. I got my warm up jersey. And then as soon as I got this up, I said I was done because I was I was dying. I looked into trying to do squash that couldn’t happen. I ended up playing a couple years of JV lacrosse, my junior and senior year. And that was a lot of fun. Until I ran the Boston Marathon it as a senior and I completely shut down. I ran as a sophomore trained, and had no problem with it. I ran as a Senior with a lot of problems. And that that ended my ended my JV lacrosse career.


Will Bachman  15:51

Yes, some sort of issues with your legs.


John Unger  15:54

Yeah, took about a week to walk again.


Will Bachman  15:59

So the head coach job sounds super intense. I mean, like, you could really put a lot of effort into that. What are some of the things that, you know, sort of surprised you about that role that you didn’t experience or weren’t maybe thinking about when you were a student athlete?


John Unger  16:22

Well, you know, the thing about coaching is you’re gonna be, you’re gonna have to disappoint some kids, which is, which is really tough. And so you’ve got a limited number of spots, limited amount of playing time. And that’s probably, that’s probably the the number one thing you have to concern yourself. I tried to concern myself with expectations of players, and still have them enjoy being on the team. I guess. Try trying to figure out you know, try learning how to be an effective coach, how to be how to win, you gradually get better and better. You study. I tried to study every night coaching. And by studying I mean, just reading like autobiographies of coaches and stuff. And gradually, you start to, I guess, my philosophy, as opposed to when I first started was, you know, I want to win, I want to win. That’s like, my number one thing, Mike, my philosophy developed into, I really want every kid on this team to have a good time and have a good experience and winning helped with that. But when that was my focus, and I would tell the kids, I’d rather I’d rather have fun than when, than when, and I have fun. And I think I gradually developed into that. And, you know, once I once I started, once we started winning as a program that ended up kind of combining pretty well.


Will Bachman  17:51

You said that you did scouting? What kind of high school were you? Where are you at? Is this a this is a private school, or


John Unger  17:58

I’m at a public school, we always end up in the later rounds of the tournament against the private schools. Yeah, I mean, scouting, it’s funny, because I would scout and you know, and basically, my system coach that you go to all these games, you write nothing down, you don’t do anything with the scouting, but yeah, I would just I would just go and see how other teams scored, how they, you know, what set plays, they might use, basic stuffs and personality of just the team. So I didn’t know it was going on. Really what was was more beneficial to me was videos. And my dad used to video our games when back in the 90s, in the early 2000s. Very, very few teams videoed, and my dad would be in the game and he’d give me the videotape after the game. And I’d watch the video that night. And I, you know, I can know right away what was working, what wasn’t working with my team, and my players. And that was a huge advantage. And then also trying to get videos of other schools, the fuse that took them. We could get videos of other schools and watch those videos and try and learn a little bit. Yeah, now there’s incredible websites out there. And a lot of great teams, a lot of teams do it. But back then it was it was pretty time intensive.


Will Bachman  19:14

Well, I had no idea that like high school would be so competitive at some of these things. And how much time it would require really as a coach because it’s also not the case. I imagine. It’s not like your compensation as a coach kind of, you know, scales with how much time you putting in it’s really just going above and beyond the call of duty.


John Unger  19:35

Right. Right. And you know, it’s really not required. I mean, you can get away doing a lot less than I did and what I the way I was doing it was not very healthy. So it’s probably better for my personal living that I’m an Assistant now because because I was pretty tired but I was young when I was younger I could pull it off. Now I can’t I couldn’t do it the way I do it the way I did it back then I couldn’t do it now. But it wasn’t required. It was just Here’s just what I was, I was pretty determined. And I was, I was pretty goal oriented about getting our team to be championship level. And I did everything I could, for really as long as I as I could with my family, when


Will Bachman  20:15

you made that shift, that mental shift from wanting to win, to wanting every kid to have a good time, how did that change the way you interacted with the team? Or the practices that you ran? Like what shifted?


John Unger  20:35

You know, it’s a good question, because I’m not sure. You know, I think that that adjustment attitude came pretty early. And there’s still the trick of having everyone have a good time. I think there’s an issue of credibility with the players and credibility with the parents that took a few years to get into. Kind of like I was talking about with the classroom where you’re, you just you want to make the kids when they know you really do care about them. Outside the field. They do a lot more for you. And they can they they’re more understanding, and they know, especially if you’re honest with them, I tried to be honest about their playing situations. Some good some, some more disappointing. But you know, I, I kind of forgot the question, but I think I was, I was just adjusting to, I don’t know, it was it was just more about my focus. I think you can also focus on winning while you’re focusing on helping the kids have a good experience. And if you are winning, it’s a lot easier.


Will Bachman  21:39

It sounds like you were also really focused on their development as people and you know, building kind of leadership skills building kind of commitment and the sorts of various, like soft skills.


John Unger  21:54

Yes, exactly. Yes, yes. Yes, that’s exactly. I cared a lot more about that, like that I cared about their sportsmanship. Probably above anything else. Sportsmanship was maybe the number one thing for me, you couldn’t play for me, if you’re a kid that intentionally failed other kids, you couldn’t play for me, if you talk to officials. You know, I, my my number one rule, which came from John Wooden was I never let I never let my players criticize another teammate. I that was if you criticize a teammate, you’re coming off. And I didn’t have that problem with many people. I wanted these guys to learn to get along with each other well, and my teams generally did very, very well with it. I mean, almost almost universally. I didn’t care about their development as people I cared about their development of character. And, you know, I, I still have a lot of great contact with many of my players. And I’ve just been proud of how they become as adults. At this point, you know, I’ve got kids that are, I’ve got players that are in their 40s. Many in their 30s. And I still, you know, I It amazes me what they’d become


Will Bachman  23:04

beyond the idea of not criticizing other members of the team. Did you have other rules as a coach for your team members?


John Unger  23:13

No, I had very, very, very few rules. Now obviously, being on time. But those as pretty much as one play, I wanted to play super hard. I wasn’t gonna play kids that didn’t play hard. I wanted this to be a super together team, you know, and that’s where that came into. Just lift your teammates up. You can’t you can’t, coaches are there to coach, not the players. And then you know, they’re how do they play with class? Do they play with sportsmanship? That’s about all and it was, it was it was as vague as that. And I tried to model it myself. Everything that I wanted them to do, I used to be able to play with them. And I don’t know, that changed, I don’t know, maybe maybe about 15 years ago, and it’s hard to keep track of that. But I always played the way I wanted them to play. But yeah, I cared much more about their development as people, their development as leaders, their development as teammates, then their actual skill, which I also cared about.


Will Bachman  24:11

I’ll put you on the spot that ask you if you can think of any examples here. And if you can’t, it’s all right. But were there any examples of true sportsmanship that your players evidenced over the years like any that that really stand out to you examples where you thought that the sportsmanship was kind of above and beyond?


John Unger  24:34

Yeah, well, I mean, yeah, it’s funny. The one that I that I go back to is a state semifinal game where I had a team that did way above its head and how they played and it was amazing. We were still playing. We were playing the number one team in the state. And we were playing an amazing game and we had, we were down one zero at halftime. We came back and tied it in the second half and we were really starting to take it to them. And late in the game, final 12 seconds, 10 seconds, the ball came out of bounds on our sideline and one of our players stopped the ball from going way out of the way out. And he tossed it to their team. And they ended up scoring with a second to go. And we lose. We lost two to one. And, and you know, and a couple people were pretty upset about it. And I was like, you can’t, you can’t fault someone for for being a good sport. I mean, to me, it was almost like losing in sudden death. I mean, it could have happened that same play could have happened in overtime. But another thing that happened with that was I told the team after the game, I would I would never criticize someone for for being honorable, although I will say as a player, I would have definitely let that ball run to the fence. But, you know, anyways, I had to pick that kid up, he was a sub a great sub, a super kid. And someone that I point to, to my own son is someone to model and, but about a few months later, I got a note from from a parent from the opposing team. They saw that on the on the videotape, and they couldn’t believe that a team would do that. But someone would do that. And I showed that note to the player. And anyways, that’s one that stuck with me through the years. And I’ve used that for other from other teams. I’ve told them that, you know, it’s, it’s not it’s not just outcome. It’s not just the result is what kind of people are you?


Will Bachman  26:27

Are there any courses or professors that you had at Harvard, where it continues to resonate with you?


John Unger  26:36

Well, you know, I’ve heard your other interview, so I kind of do, you know, as much as poorly as I did injustice, and which isn’t that poorly, but as much trouble as I had with it, I really enjoyed the class. It familiarized me with concepts that I had never really thought about. That one was great for me. I love science be 29, which was it was it was basically a class about nature and nurture. And I seem to always gravitate to books that talk about that topic. I thought that was really great. And the other one that for me was interesting was Michelangelo because I hated art in high school, I took I took one art class, I took freshman choir. And then I took no more arts after that. And one, it has little to do with art as possible. But I just love the class of Michelangelo gave me appreciation for art that I never had before for that individual. So, you know, that was good. And then I would say that I wrote for the Crimson for a year, I wrote sports for the Crimson. And that class improved my right Oh, that wasn’t a class. But that activity improved my writing so much, just having right all the time. And I only did it for a year. But I felt I felt a difference from then on. So yeah, as the last class I took Larry Summers class. It was on some economics class. I remember a lot of the concept for that was was interesting to me and something that I took into game theory.


Will Bachman  28:14

I envy you that you wrote for the crimson, I was a photographer, but I always think that my writing would have been improved if I had comp news instead. What you mentioned earlier that you read a lot of books about coaches, memoirs, biographies, and so forth. Any of those books stand out to you? Are there any coaches that you particularly admire?


John Unger  28:37

There are I mean, actually, you know, I try to read an hour every night from some coach autobiography. Well, I did for the longest time, maybe 2025 years. Wow. That’s a lot to me. It’s a long time. Right. I John Wooden is my favorite coach is he was the great coach for for UCLA. Back when he had he did have some great teams with with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton, but he had great teams before then also I’ve loved him. I’ve loved his philosophy. Dean Smith or Dean Smith’s another passport coach I care a lot about I thought he was a great innovator. And then in soccer, Anson Dorrance was the coach for North Carolina. He still is actually and he’s won. He’s won more national championships, things lost. Those got anything I could find in those guys, but really anything I could find on any guys. And then Herb Brooks who coached the Miracle on Ice, there’s not very much on him, but anything on him. I love reading, but I’ve read. I’ve read hundreds of books on from coaches, by coaches. And what really helped me in soccer was my mom was brought me a autobiography from from England, a minor league managers diary. And I started realizing, you know, I could get books because there’s not as many soccer books in the United States. I just started getting all kinds of books from Britain. So books from like, coaches In the 60s and 70s, like Matt Busby from Manchester United jock Stein, who was from Scotland, I started just reading tons and tons of books of managers out Ramsey who coached England to the World Cup Championship in 1966. And it was, it was some about soccer. A lot of it was about management. Yeah, anything I can but I could probably rattle off more there’s, you know, everyone loves Coach K, Coach K’s pretty awesome. And even though I root against Duke, with everything I’ve got, I have so much admiration for Coach K. Um, there’s many. There’s many we could talk a long time. Well, that’s


Will Bachman  30:37

amazing that you continue to find like new lessons and valuable information that you know, not just, you know, reading a half a dozen, but it sounds like you read many, many books on this topic and really went deep on it.


John Unger  30:50

Yeah, it is a passion. So the thing I like reading most about even even now, I find fewer and fewer out there and I broaden my reading far more in recent years. But yeah.


Will Bachman  31:04

John, for folks that wanted to follow up with you or kind of just check out what you’re doing. Where would they find you online?


John Unger  31:12

Um, well, I’ve got everything in the Red Book. I you know, I answer my email religiously. Since our union I’ve like I’ve now gone on Facebook. I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to still do this when school starts, but I’m on Facebook. I love being friends with classmates. I’ve even become friends with some classmates I’ve never met before, but I saw them on panels and have now become connected. I’m on Twitter, but I really just read people I don’t post anything. I really don’t post much on Facebook. But yeah, I’m happy emails. Great. I there’s some people I email with all the time classmates and text messaging also, I think my phone numbers on there.


Will Bachman  31:52

Amazing. John, well, thank you so much for agreeing to come on the show today. And listeners. If you have not already, you can go to 92 see all the past episodes. Sign up for the newsletter. I’ll let you know about the next episode. John was great speaking with you.


John Unger  32:12

Thanks so much. Well,